ESPN Zone's festivities fan fire for sports buffs Carnival atmosphere includes ski jumping, golfing by celebrities

July 12, 1998|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN STAFF

For Dan Murphy, the scariest thing about ski jumping into the Inner Harbor yesterday wasn't the murky green water. It was screaming four stories down a 4-foot-wide white carpet at 30 mph, heading for his somersaults.

"I'm used to jumping on a much wider platform," said Murphy, 23, of Montreal, a freestyle skier who competes in World Cup events, as he stood dripping in his wet suit at the bottom of the jump.

"The water, I think, is all right," he added, with a shrug. "At least I hope so."

Murphy was among the handful of skiers, trampoliners, skateboarders and in-line skaters participating in what was billed as a "sports festival" to celebrate yesterday's gala opening of the ESPN Zone restaurant and entertainment complex.

ESPN Zone, the first complex in a planned worldwide chain, was built around the theme of sports television by Walt Disney Co. and Disney-owned ESPN in the former Power Plant on Pier 4.

With about 220 television monitors displaying games from around the world, its operators are betting that there are a lot of people who think that life resembles a giant home-entertainment system.

Mobs of Baltimoreans and out-of-town visitors seemed stunned by the festivities. Blasted by rock and rap music from giant outdoor speakers, some watched the athletes -- mostly veterans of ESPN's annual X Games.

Other festival-goers shot baskets, tossed footballs at life-sized plastic cutouts of Baltimore Ravens receivers, or chipped golf balls at an artificial green floating 60 yards from the World Trade Center -- paying $5 a ball for a chance to win a new Toyota with a hole-in-one shot. The money went to charity.

'An amusement park'

"It seems like it's turning into an amusement park down here," said Paul Stutz, 28, of White Marsh, a computer systems administrator. Stutz craned his neck, trying to watch actor Samuel L. Jackson hit golf balls from the floating pier of Trident Electric Boat Rentals.

Jackson, who played a spiritual hit man in the movie "Pulp Fiction," whacked a particularly vicious slice and laughed.

"I almost got a photographer!" he shouted.

Dorothy Benain, 50, of Philadelphia had a puzzled smile as she watched ski jumper Murphy somersault and smack into the water in front of the former Power Plant. Someone tossed Murphy a life ring and pulled him to shore.

"It would help if the water were blue, clear," Benain said, leaning over the railing on the Pratt Street sidewalk. "This looks like bilge water. But what the heck?"

Jerry Johnson, 49, a physician's assistant from Tucson, Ariz., waited in line for a chance to shoot 12 basketballs in 30 seconds near the National Aquarium's entrance. As his wife and daughter watched, the 5-foot-10, 174-pound tourist hit three baskets and retired from the field a happy man.

'No. 1 super fan'

Disney-ESPN officials swarmed around the harbor in khaki slacks and white golf shirts, keeping the festival running smoothly. Many used walkie-talkie earphones or wore wireless headsets.

Ron Kropkowski of Dundalk, who boasts that he is Baltimore's "No. 1 super fan," wore a cardboard sign around his neck: "Welcome to Baltimore ESPN Zone."

"Anybody who puts $15 million into my hometown, I support them," said the 40-year-old United Parcel Service employee, who attends Orioles games wearing a sign updating the game count in Cal Ripken Jr.'s streak. "They've got three of my favorite subjects over there: eating, drinking and watching sports."

Ralph Johnson, 45, a security guard from West Baltimore, had visited ESPN Zone during a preview opening. He was enchanted by its 35,000 square feet of restaurant and bar space, video games and TV monitors.

"We found a way to get away from the wife," Johnson said. "She's already said she's going to burn it down."

Max Cremeans of Parkville, a lanky 21-year-old skateboarder, jTC came to see a friend, Bucky Lasek of Dundalk, skateboard in the half-pipe. Lasek is an X Game veteran.

Cremeans hoped the skateboarding exhibition would earn the sport respect in an area where it gets little.

"Maybe everybody won't look at skaters like little troublemakers," he said.

Parade and fireworks

About 25,000 people were expected to attend the outdoor festival, which included an evening parade and fireworks. Only invited guests were permitted inside "the Zone" for last night's gala.

It opens to the public at 11 a.m. today.

Pub Date: 7/12/98

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